“Many painters, including myself in the past, have worked in the timeless Olympian detachment of the studio. Here one can work on a canvas, set it aside and come back to it, sometimes years later, or be occupied with several works at once. Working outdoors is the exact opposite: There I am occupied with a single work embodying my presence and observation in a unique location and span of time. Time is integral to the painting’s subject, and, as Graham Sutherland once said ‘I am the figure in the landscape’.
Since leaving Hornsey Art College, where my paintings and stained glass were often in a symbolist style, I have worked predominantly from direct observation.
Though living in London, I was drawn to natural settings – wild urban gardens, as well as countryside. Over the years I found my paintings becoming increasingly prolonged enterprises.
My plein-air paintings have come to be called ‘plantscapes’ rather than ‘landscapes’, as they are close-ups of natural plant communities, usually in the margins of cultivation and wilderness. Meanwhile I have always painted or drawn people, and these are usually, though not always, much quicker studies.
By the 1980s, I had come to feel my outdoor paintings were a topical reflection on the key importance of photosynthesis and of green plants in Earth’s ecology, economy, and in climate change.
Many of my paintings have been of untended or semi- wild urban gardens – small, fenced-off, owned areas of the planet, offering a sense of closeness to nature and at the same time, a remoteness from the world, affecting how we see ourselves and behave in relation to the Earth.
Contrary to what some people seem to think, my paintings aren’t photographic. They are observational drawings made directly in paint, usually dispensing with preliminary drawings in other media, and painted continuously over periods of several months – though always taking a break on Saturdays!
Rain gives the light a special clarity, and helps the painting to grow as well as the plants. I put up a transparent awning so I can work in all weathers.
I look for a neglected or semi-wild corner of a private estate or garden – always in negotiation with its owners. I want to paint a community of wild plants, and to present them centre-stage with the human world modestly in the background. I start with the most distant features and gradually work towards the foreground, painting overlaid lattices of vegetation, and tracing a journey through time as well as space, so that signs of seasonal change can come to co-exist on the same canvas.
People sometimes say my painting is a form of meditation, and, yes, its different time-world brings realisations and new insights.
Subject and Technique
In painting I am in search of something I could not have imagined.
The identity of one’s subject matter is a lifelong quest, inseparable from the developing technique, and working in a living natural setting requires a certain speed. For me, what some painters might consider distracting details, such as individual leaves and grass-blades, are integral to the picture’s structure and part of its subject.
Once I’ve decided on a general location, identifying the precise spot can take a week. I shall be working there day and daily for several months, so practical considerations and sensing how the scene might change are all-important. Even so, the final decision is usually based on gut feeling – if I’m lucky, a ‘coup de foudre’.
An important aspect of the subject is that of the performance itself. The picture is the outcome of the painter working from observation in a particular time and place, and it develops in parallel with seasonal change. What goes on the canvas is, as Harold Rosenberg wrote of abstract expressionism, ‘not a picture but an event’. (ARTnews Dec 1952 quoted by Martin Gayford 2018) Yet the end-product is a picture, and I’m curious to see what finally emerges from the initial ‘coup de foudre’.
The following video invites you to visit some of my ‘outdoor studios’:
Special thanks to those patient souls who have allowed me to paint in their gardens or rural estates: Jackie Baker and Clement Griffith in North London; André, Eliane, Maud & Julie Saussaye, Marc Gémin & Sylvie Breuilly, Christian Gémin, Jean-Pierre & Anne Lavaud, Bruno Horcholle, Bénédicte Desvaux, Stuart & Valery Millar, in Normandy. Also to Steve and Diane Lloyd-Williams, and Michael Dickens, in the Pyrénées-Orientales.
© John Pearce March 2017